After 5 years without drinkable water, Santee asks: When will our tap water be safe?

May 17, 2024, 9:02 a.m. ·

Milton Denney
Milton Denney loads up bottled water for distribution to residents of Santee, Neb. High levels of manganese in the tribe’s water may have adverse effects on the central nervous systems of people who consume it. (Photo by Jerry L Mennenga for the Flatwater Free Press)

Kameron Runnels watches, frustrated, as a pair of Santee tribal members move a pallet of water bottles with a borrowed forklift.

The source of Runnels’ frustration: They’re only moving three pallets of bottled water on this Monday morning, less than a quarter of what the tribe had ordered. The too-small shipment had arrived on the reservation only after an unexplained month-long delay.

They load the water onto a flatbed trailer and roll off down the streets of Santee, dropping only two cases – 48 small bottles – at the front door of each home. 

It won’t be enough to get the residents here through to the next delivery, Runnels said. And the Santee tribal members who live outside the village limits won’t get any water at all. 

“We gotta get this water fixed,” Runnels said. “We have to get clean water here.”

For nearly five years the people here on this northeast Nebraska reservation haven’t been able to drink or cook with the water that flows from their taps. 

White flecks of sediment float in it. It smells wrong, tastes different, and leaves residue behind in pots. Reddish brown stains spread down the light-colored siding of houses on the reservation, left there by dripping hose spigots.

Manganese runs through the pipes of the Santee Sioux Nation in huge amounts, Runnels said. It builds up and destroys water heaters, faucets and washing machines. It could be sickening adults and endangering young children. 

The Environmental Protection Agency put the tribe under a no-drink order in 2019, after the tribe found manganese in its water samples above the EPA’s health advisory levels.

Since he was elected vice chairman two and a half years ago, Runnels has been traveling to Lincoln and Washington, D.C., highlighting the problem to lawmakers and bureaucrats, asking the state and the feds for help. It hasn’t worked.

Jessica Rouillard
Jessica Rouillard talks with a young girl walking her dog as she delivers bottled water on Monday, May 13, 2024. (Photo by Jerry L Mennenga for the Flatwater Free Press)

A U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs grant that once offset the cost of bottled water has dried up. A 2022 bill in the Nebraska Legislature meant to deliver millions in funding to the reservation died on the floor.

The Legislature did earmark some state water funds for the tribe this spring, a move that tribal leaders hope could spark momentum and allow the Santee to complete a massive, $53 million proposed water project.  

In the meantime, the tribe is spending around $14,000 a month buying and delivering bottled water.

“We’re supposed to be the richest country, greatest country in the history of the world,” said Runnels. “But you got people right in the middle of your state, right in the middle of the country, that can’t even drink their own faucet water. Can’t even fill up a glass or make tea or anything like that.”

The manganese menace

We all need a small amount of manganese, a common, naturally-occurring mineral in rocks and soil, in order to stay healthy. 

But consuming high levels of manganese can cause “adverse effects to the central nervous system,” said a Nebraska Department of Energy and Environment spokeswoman in an email. Formula-fed infants are at greatest risk because of their developing nervous systems and higher absorption rates.

Studies have shown that when high levels of manganese are inhaled, usually by steel workers, it can produce a disabling condition similar to Parkinson’s disease. 

According to the EPA, adverse health effects are not expected below 0.3 milligrams of manganese per liter of drinking water. Canada’s health department has a guideline of less than half that much manganese. And the World Health Organization recommends an even lower health-based guideline of 0.08 milligrams per liter.

Kameron Runnels
Kameron Runnels, tribal vice chairman for the Santee Sioux Nation, talks about safe drinking water issues on the Santee Sioux Reservation. He’s been championing the issues in Washington, D.C. and Lincoln since he was elected to the council. (Photo by Jerry L Mennenga for the Flatwater Free Press)

Recent tests on the Santee Sioux Reservation have shown manganese levels at 2.8 milligrams per liter. And at times, said the tribe’s civil engineer Clinton Powell, samples show that the manganese in the water here has soared 50 times higher than what the government says is safe to drink.

Boiling the water only makes it worse.

Until a few months ago, there were still families on the reservation boiling the water for tea and cooking because they couldn’t access bottled water, or didn’t know it was unsafe.

“Officially this has been four years in the making, but actually it’s more like 20-30 years,” Runnels said. “Who knows what this has done? Has it been making people sick, causing cancer, or any other health issue people run into out here? We just don’t know.”

Band-Aid fix

The Santee Sioux reservation is rural, isolated and ill-equipped to handle the bottled water delivery delays. The nearest Hy-Vee or Walmart is more than 45 minutes away in Yankton, South Dakota.

The tribe normally orders about 20 pallets every two weeks to meet the daily needs of its roughly 270 households. Workers usually keep a pallet in town for emergencies.

“For someone using it all the time, for cooking and drinking, it’s gone within the two weeks,” Runnels said.

But because of this month’s inadequate water delivery, around 50 Santee households outside town – some as far as 25 minutes away – either have to buy their own bottled water or drive into town and fill their jugs.

It gets worse in the winter, when the miles of winding gravel roads sometimes become impassable for the pickup truck and flatbed trailer, ending deliveries to the far reaches of the reservation. During those weeks, residents have to find their own way into town to get water.

essica Rouillard and Milton Denney drive about distributing bottled water
As Jessica Rouillard and Milton Denney drive about distributing bottled water, they pass by a street sign titled “Good Water St.” Tap water on the reservation has been undrinkable for almost five years. (Photo by Jerry L Mennenga for the Flatwater Free Press)

The tribe’s health center has an expensive water filtration system for its dialysis center, Runnels said, and the water dispenser at the small grocery store in town consistently tests safe. The EPA and federal Indian Health Service suggested that tribe members bring containers to fill at the health center or store as a temporary solution.

“Really, that’s where we’re at right now? We have to go fill a bunch of buckets of water at different places every day?” Runnels said. “You probably need to do that multiple times a day if you use enough water.”

Some people pay to rent their own 5 gallon water jugs. Some have water softener and filtration systems, which help with the manganese, but don’t know if it’s enough to make the water safe.

With an estimated $100,000 of the tribe’s money sunk into trying to supply bottled water since the grants ran out, tribal leaders say they’re in an unsustainable position.

Runnels said he asked the U.S. Department of the Interior for emergency support a month ago.

He hasn’t heard back.

Reaching across the river

The Santee Sioux Nation needs about $53 million to achieve its ideal solution, crossing the Missouri River and connecting to South Dakota’s Randall Community Water District.

The plan is to bring water down with a pipeline from Randall’s treatment plant to serve the tribe. They’ve considered lots of solutions, Powell said, but he and other leaders believe this plan has the least amount of long-term risk.

“The tribe does not want to pursue a Band-Aid fix, we are looking to pursue generational change so our children’s children don’t have to battle this problem,” Tribal Chairman Alonzo Denney said.

The tribe could try to pull water directly from the Missouri River, but then sediment could clog the intake pipes, Powell said.

Groundwater isn’t an option either, tribal leaders say. The IHS drilled as many as 30 different locations looking for a potential water source, but couldn’t find water clean or plentiful enough anywhere on the reservation.

The Missouri River runs along the northern border of the Santee Sioux Reservation
The Missouri River runs along the northern border of the Santee Sioux Reservation. The tribe needs $53 million to drill a pipeline under the river to connect with a water system in South Dakota. (Photo by Jerry L Mennenga for the Flatwater Free Press)

The Ogallala Aquifer stops short of the northeast corner of the state, where the Santee Sioux Reservation is located, said Crystal Powers, extension educator at the Nebraska Water Center.

A nitrate plume looms in groundwater near Santee, too. If it migrated to any newly-drilled wells, the tribe would have to invest substantially more in treatment. Many parts of Nebraska are seeing a slow, steady increase in nitrate in groundwater, which has been linked to childhood cancers and thyroid disease. The problem is worse in sandy soil like some of Santee’s, Powers said.

In the past quarter century, there have been five different federally funded studies of the reservation’s contaminated water and the feasibility of different solutions, Powell said.

“A lot of times, each federal agency requires their own study,” Powell said. “So since you can’t just use one study for everybody, that does slow you down a ton.”

The estimated $53-million budget would build a complete pipeline, upgrade some of Randall’s existing facilities, and build a major storage tank for the tribe.

If it goes to plan, the end result will be cheaper, clean water supplied to Santee, Powell said.

The tribe is waiting now to hear back from a USDA application, and seeking other funding opportunities from the state and several agencies.

“This has gone on too long. The time for planning and studies are over with,” Runnels said.

Government money

The Santee Sioux Nation has also been asking the State of Nebraska for help with its water for years, Runnels said. In 2022, the tribe had hope for funding through a water quality bill, but it fell apart before coming to a vote.

“The message from them was, ‘The government can help you guys. You guys got government money for that. Federal government money,’” Runnels said.

The Nebraska Legislature recently changed the laws governing an existing grant program. Now the state must prioritize applications to the Water Sustainability Fund from tribes under an active no-drink order from the EPA.

“It was pretty bleak just a few months ago because we didn’t think the state was gonna help us at all,” Runnels said. “Thankfully the state compromised. They didn’t directly give us money, but it’s still a victory for us.”

Milton Denney
Milton Denney delivers bottled water to a residence in Santee, Neb. The tribe pays about $7,000 every two weeks to truck in bottles of water for its members. (Photo by Jerry L Mennenga for the Flatwater Free Press)

There’s a number of communities in the state experiencing water issues, said Sen. Robert Clements, chair of the Appropriations Committee, but the tribe being unable to drink its water and trucking in bottles made it a priority to address.

Sen. Jane Raybould, a Democrat from Lincoln, initially proposed the change, which Clements rolled into a larger bill.

“For the Santee Sioux to be without safe drinking water for over four years is a crisis,” Raybould wrote in a statement sent to the Flatwater Free Press. “I am grateful that we found a path for tribes to apply for grant funding from the state that they can use to leverage additional federal funds to restore safe, clean drinking water to their reservation.”

The bill’s language won’t help other tribes in Nebraska facing water quality or infrastructure issues because the Santee Sioux is the only tribe under an official no-drink order. It’s an unfortunate outcome, Runnels said, but part of the compromise.

Between applications to federal and state programs, and recent meetings with representatives in Washington, the tribal leaders are feeling better about securing long-term access to safe water, soon.

“It’s just one more thing in our history that we’ve had to deal with,” Runnels said. “It would be a really big thing for us, a real victory for us, if this got completed. It would be something for all of us to be happy and proud about.”

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